Larger Than Life: 4 Paul Bunyan Statues Built to Amaze
Before he became a literal and figurative giant of American folklore, Paul Bunyan existed only in the stories shared between 19th-century lumberjacks in northern states such as Michigan and Minnesota. Over evening campfires, they gave life to a heroic, seven-foot-tall lumberman and his equally imposing blue ox, who together could clear 100 million feet of pine from a 40-acre patch of land. Perhaps a real Bunyan once existed and the legend grew around him, or perhaps he was a complete fabrication. Either way, Paul became an emblem of the logging industry.
In 1912, University of Wisconsin student K. Bernice Stewart began collecting Bunyan stories from the lumberjacks themselves. She published some of these in 1917 as part of an essay appearing in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy. This represented the first attempt at a scholarly interpretation of Bunyan’s mythology. Around the same time, public relations manager William B. Laughead released a series of advertisement booklets featuring Paul and his stories for Red River Lumber Company. Other writers took note of Stewart and Laughead’s documents and further embellished the tales of Bunyan in books of their own. Then Walt Disney Studios released a 17-minute animated film called Paul Bunyan in 1958, which would be nominated for an Academy Award. A star had been born.
While Bunyan has long since reached the mainstream, his legend still burns brightest in the lumber regions from which he originated. A debate even rages on between several towns over which can rightfully claim to be Bunyan’s birthplace. But the most visible outward signs of their passion for Paul are the massive statues created in his likeness. Our most recent issue of Preservation magazine featured one of these—a recently restored, 31-foot-tall giant in Portland, Oregon. Here are four more across the country that capture the grandeur of the larger-than-life lumberjack.
Bunyan statues tend to stand out in any community they’re placed in, but the one constructed in the town of Akeley (population: 430) in 1984 is truly the star of the show. Billed as the “World’s Largest Paul Bunyan” (though it is not the tallest), the statue would be even more imposing if it hadn’t been built in a kneeling position; standing straight up, the figure would reach an estimated 60 feet high!
But Dean Krotzer, who constructed the statue with his sons, wanted an accessible Bunyan that conveyed cordiality and warmth. He built Bunyan reaching out with his hand, allowing passersby to clamber on for a fun photo opportunity. It sits in front of the Akeley Paul Bunyan Historical Museum, and is made of rebar, fiberglass, and 4.5 tons of steel.
Bangor, Maine (Pictured at Top)
Bangor’s Paul Bunyan statue also purports to be the world’s largest, and while it may not live up to this claim, its detailed, realistic features set it apart from its rivals. Bangor received it as a gift from a New York design company in 1959 for the town’s 125th anniversary. It was built out of fiberglass over a metal frame and measures at 31 feet tall. Bunyan carries a double-sided axe and a leavey, a tool with a metal hook on one end that allows loggers to lift and turn pieces of lumber.
The statue also has a pop culture claim to fame. Stephen King featured it in his novel It, which was set in a town significantly inspired by Bangor. The statue becomes possessed by an evil spirit and comes to life, attacking one of the main characters.
Bemidji is the proud owner of the country’s oldest Paul Bunyan statue, which dates to 1937. It’s also been named the second most photographed icon in the United States by the Eastman Kodak Company. Maybe that’s because Paul’s faithful blue ox Babe is portrayed beside him, complete with a smoking pipe built into his nostrils to simulate breathing.
The pair were initially constructed to serve as mascots for a winter carnival being put on by the city. For Paul, the Bemidji-based builders assembled a wooden framework over footings reinforced with heavy steel, using concrete stucco for the exterior. Their result was an 18-foot-tall, 8-ton statue that some say resembled the city’s mayor at the time. Following the carnival, Paul was placed at Bemidji’s busiest intersection, where it remains to this today. Meanwhile, Babe was mounted on a Ford Model T and carried to other festivals around Minnesota before being returned to his rightful place next to Paul.
However, the Paul Bunyan affection isn’t limited to New England and the Midwest, as the northern California town of Klamath proves. Like Bemidji’s, Babe accompanies the Bunyan statue at the Trees of Mystery in Klamath. But not only is Klamath’s Bunyan nearly triple the height of Bemidji’s at 49 feet (making him a strong candidate for largest in the world), he’s also animatronic! Visitors are greeted with a big hand wave and a “Hello there!” from the towering figure.
Several versions of Paul and Babe previously took up residence at the site—the first Paul was built out of papier-mâché and only lasted a year. The current editions, made of a sturdier combination of wood, wire, and concrete stucco, have existed since 1961 and 1949, respectively.